Friday, January 05, 2007

The Transformation of PeeWee Witkin

A Belated Christmas Story from Charmaine Frost:

Charmaine Frost headshot by Charmaine Frost

Perhaps this drawing by the author — who avoids the dangerous end of cameras — is as close as we can get to an insight of her amazing eye and genius for the fantastic.

When PeeWee was eight, her Mama announced, "You are getting older. It's time for you to learn about Quality." Although PeeWee remained as short as a four year old and even thought of herself as "the runt," she possessed what Mama called "a big person's brain in a little body."

Mama pointed to the bedroom floor. She frowned at the heaps of nicked Lego blocks, the dolls with scuffed cheeks and dust-darkened hair, the stuffed toys with mangy hot-pink fur.

"All plastic, I hate plastic. Nothing of value, nothing that endures," Mama shook her head in disapproval, "Nothing here teaches anything; there's nothing here that you can carry with you into later life. You do want to own things of quality, don't you?"

PeeWee nodded. PeeWee really wasn't sure what Mama was talking about; as an adopted child, she wondered if her confusion was due to the lack of a biological link with Mama. But she did know that Mama always required a nod. Although the Sunday school books portrayed God as an old man with a long white beard and bulging muscles, PeeWee knew that God really was a 5 foot 5 inch tall, stocky matron with all-knowing eyes and a screech audible throughout the universe. God even liked to wear cameo brooches and 18 karat gold watches.

"Christmas is coming in two months, " Mama continued, "So it's time for you to start thinking about what you'll ask Santa for. "

PeeWee recalled the conversation about Santa from the Christmas before. Father and Uncle Billy had sunk into the embracing cushions, sleepy from overeating and staring hypnotized at one of those cartoon Christmas specials on the big TV. PeeWee had folded her compact body noiselessly behind the armrest of an adjacent chair while Mother and Aunt Margie droned in the adjoining kitchen; a tiny person soon became an invisible person who could eavesdrop on anyone.

"When I look at that Santa guy," Billy had drawled, "I don't feel so fat. And he's been around what? — 400 years, morbidly obese with no doctor and no history of heart attacks. And I bet he doesn't get exercise either. Bet he doesn't go hunting polar bear with his trusty Remington. Doesn't lift weights in some arctic gym, while magic polar bears run laps alongside panting elves. The real miracle of Christmas is Santa's longevity; someone should study the dude's DNA. And Macys might send Ole Blubber-Belly a new outfit. That fake ermine on red velvet's really tacky, makes him look like a fat French king with no taste."

"Well," Father had muttered, "All this nonsense keeps the economy going. I was doing some calculations: The number of dollars spent between Halloween and Christmas in America just about equals the defense budget."

"Talking about commercialism," Billy'd continued, "I was reading where the church got really angry at some chain store in Mexico. They were selling crucified Santas; plug it in, the plastic Santa glows and little bulbs all around the cross blink on and off. Those crucified Santas were selling like hotcakes from hell, until the church issued an edict. And they were selling reindeer nativity scenes, with Rudolf kneeling by baby Jesus while a red bulb in his nose flickered. Of course, whenever I see Rudolf, I think, Where else do we see shiny red noses? On drunks! If Rudolf tries to drive that sleigh, the cops should haul him over for a sobriety test and let him belch in jail."

"What the heck," Father had shrugged, "Pine trees don't even grow in the area where Christ was born; if we were going to do this thing right, we'd hang balls from palm fronds. Heck, the only reason I do it all is because of Joan. She's gotta have her tree every year."

"Like Margie and her freak magazines; if she doesn't read about one alien abduction or one baby born with three heads each week, she thinks the world's coming to an end. Oh well, people gotta have something to look forward to."

Aunt Margie, the family eccentric, eagerly awaited tabloid news about the latest extraterrestrial encounters or mutants sleeping in Manhattan subways, and decorated her home with toys. Each year, she added another vinyl armadillo or polyester cub to her indoor menagerie; her population of garden gnomes had grown, now migrating along the dirt aisles between her house and the neighbors', straggling over the back patio, and overcrowding the front lawn until only rare green stalks poked up between sturdy worker boots. "And what can you expect from a middle-aged woman who still collects stuffed animals, dresses them in custom tailored velvet vests and silk pantaloons, and meticulously perches them in a row atop the sofa and on every shelf in the house? What can you expect from a woman who adds more elves to her yard each year, and leaves them there even when the forsythia's blazing and they're out-of-season?" Mother's dismissive comments hammered inside PeeWee's head like raps from a drill sergeant's baton. "She lives in Toy Land, in Fantasy Land. Build her a three story house out of gingerbread and carrot cake, with stale cookies for stairs and murals painted with icing rosettes, then stage an invasion by the three-headed eyeless mutants from Mars before she recognizes that the plumbing has gone soggy. She has a little person's brain in a big person's body, just the opposite of you, PeeWee."

Recalling that conversation, PeeWee nodded to Mama, who loomed expectantly behind her.

Six weeks before Christmas, on "Quality Initiation Day", Mama took PeeWee shopping.

"It's time to focus on Quality," Mama intoned, as she drove down the oak lined roads that led to her favorite shopping hang-outs. "Stuffed toys fall apart in a year. You'll get bored with that doll in two weeks and throw it in the closet. You know that, don't you? So now it's time to focus on something that will have value in the future — like a silverware set, or mahogany lowboy for your bedroom. You should start a collection which you'll add to throughout life."

PeeWee stared out at distant houses as tiny as Lego blocks, at oak leaves fluttering overhead and spinning downward like shredded party confetti. The car stopped in a small lot, in front of Edgewater Antiques.

"Santa can't afford to buy you antiques," Mama declared, "He has to buy gifts for all those starving kids in India. But they sell quality reproductions here too — Kittinger, Stickley, which all go up in value over time. Queen Anne and Chippendale. I already called the storeowner; there are several lowboys for you to look at." Mama marched towards the store; PeeWee followed, like a puppy trotting behind its owner.

"Now feel here, how smoothly these scrolls are carved; compare this to the sharp edges on the lowboy over there, Look at how the grain of the wood follows the contour of the leg," Mama lectured, while the shopkeeper watched from a safe distance. "That's better workmanship. Quality. When you choose furniture, you should always go for good workmanship; quality endures."

PeeWee knelt on the carpet, holding back a sneeze as dry mustiness wafted up from its fibers. She ran her forefinger along the inner curve of the leg, feeling the smoothness, then noticing the black ellipse of grime that had adhered to her skin. She peered closely at this leg and that, at this drawer facing and that tabletop, trying to see the flow of the grain through a dust glaze.

"She's deciding what she's going to ask Santa for," Mother confided as the shopkeeper loped forward. "She's decided that she wants to invest in the future, for when she has a home of her own. I told her that was a smart move."

The shopkeeper slipped between Mother and the lowboy, so close that PeeWee could smell the lemon-scented furniture wax and detergent absorbed permanently into his stiffly pressed trousers. He clamped his metal-gray lips tightly together until the skin around them fissured and held his long, knife-thin nose high; his body tensed, ready to pounce on this brat when she bit into a handle to sample its taste or thrashed against a leg during a tantrum.

"She looks very young to be thinking about the future," he grunted. "How old is she — four?" He coughed, then relaxed his facial expression into the deliberate blandness that wouldn't offend a customer. PeeWee winced and her shoulders sank. Mama had guessed that the shortness was due to worms "probably caught from that dog; the kennel was next to a pigeon breeder, who knows what filth those birds brought in, and you sit on the floor with your butt absorbing all the parasites." Mama had wondered if PeeWee merely had an odd metabolism, asserting: "You'll have a growth spurt, shoot up to be just as tall as the others. But whatever, remember that you're smart. Smart. And mental height beats physical height any day." Whenever PeeWee focused on her size, she knew that she'd rather be invisible than small. She crouched under the lowboy, trying to merge with the shadows.

"Have you decided which one you want?" Mother snapped.

The store smelled of dusty desolation; its tables were covered with the grimy veneer of timelessness. Tarnish meant sterling underneath; irregularities in grain meant real wood instead of veneer. PeeWee had heard grownups say that Quality was like Beauty and Goodness and Truth, a ghost seen by only a few and a mystery to everyone else. She wasn't a connoisseur, would never understand Quality. But Mama, the expert, had repeatedly praised the smooth scrolls of the lowboy beside the yellow taffeta chair; Mama's praise was the clue.

"I like this one best," PeeWee piped, standing erect before Mother's favorite.

The storekeeper strained to smile down at the little girl. Mother elbowed him aside, inhaled until her chest seemed as large as a boulder, and curled one hand confidently over each of PeeWee's shoulders.

"That's the right choice. I'm glad that you have good taste, like your mother," Mama asserted. "Right after Thanksgiving, we'll take you to see Santa; he has to put in his order early, for such a big item. Now it's time to go."

PeeWee trotted behind her mother as the shopkeeper gaped. At the exit, Mother turned abruptly to face the shopkeeper.

"Eight," she announced. "She's just small for her age. A little body but big, grown up brains. Probably more brains than all your kids, cousins, brothers and sisters combined. A big brain, that's how she can know about Quality."

PeeWee clambered into the car and collapsed into the engulfing seat. On the ride home, she imagined her body shrinking until her legs floated threadlike and her nubbin fingers wriggled like inchworms behind a great, enlarging brain; her chest, chin, nose, lips and limbs would contract until they held form only on the molecular level, identifiable as hands or feet when viewed through a microscopic but invisible to the naked eye. Care taking might be easier for Mama then; floating brains didn't need baths or toothbrushes or new, clean shirts. If she lived inside a laboratory's giant aquarium, like the giant brains in comic strips, Mama wouldn't even have to worry about attending PTA meetings or buying hope for the future of a stunted daughter by stockpiling silver and mahogany.

"Not so bad, living in a fish tank," she mumbled sleepily. The warm water, sanitized but thick with nutrients, would wash over her giant, growing, buoyant brain; shimmering silver and gold wires, connecting her brain to computers and sensors, would bob in a suspended web around her. She didn't know any terms from neurology or robotics, but she recalled images from science documentaries. The latest breakthrough in neurobiology, the future is now; afloat in a glass-walled womb, her big brain could merge with the internet and all its knowledge through the conduits of a thousand wires.

"What?" Mother muttered as she clenched bloodless fists over the steering wheel and scowled at the traffic.

"Nothing." No more playground jeers when her flailing legs couldn't outrun an indolent ball, no joint pains promised as the spoils of age. The fantasy, the engine's purring, and the stagnant warm air of the car's sealed interior lulled her to sleep.

"We have another appointment with Dr. Jarvis today." When an eight year old was the height of a small four year old, teachers conferred with the principal and the principal scheduled a special meeting with the mother. When a child hadn't grown for almost five years, even the most optimistic mother couldn't persuade herself that nothing was wrong.

"To get the results of your tests. Maybe you just have a tapeworm. A few pills, the tapeworm dies, and you shoot up a foot in a month," Mother continued.

Maybe her parents bought her from a Freak Farm; they sell their stock cheaper than do regular adoption agencies. Maybe she's the result of one of those ultra-secret government experiments, a hybrid of human and mouse genes; now the government's researching how the hybrid babies grow up, whether they'll scuttle through mazes for cheese while dragging limp tails and answering questions in grammatically correct squeaks...Probably the result of too much inbreeding, bad blood mating with rotten blood. She may be smart now, but the brain'll be next to stop growing. Maybe even shrivel and go moldy inside her skull before she turns twelve.... No, no. Extraterrestrial rape, her Mama was impregnated by a midget alien with boneless arms, translucent gray skin and a balloon head in which a brain throbbed and shot off hissing sparks. PeeWee had heard the neighbors whisper and snicker when they passed her on the street.

"To find out why I'm so short, maybe find a cure," PeeWee mumbled.

Stoop-shouldered and sighing, PeeWee recalled her last visit with Aunt Margie. Margie had scampered towards Mother, squealing as she rustled pages of the National Enquirer. "Look, it says 'Arizona octuplets proven to have father from Alpha Centuri. Scientists discovered chemical compounds unlike any seen on earth when they examined blood from the green babies who, in addition to glowing in the dark, seemingly can move objects at will. Their mother, who manifests no psychic ability herself, states that the father simply vanished one night from their bed. Astrobiologist Lulu Frenzy, of the California Institute of Paranormal Research, hypothesizes that he may have been a shape-shifting alien capable of transforming himself into a noncorporeal entity and wonders if the infants will show a similar talent for self transformation'. Ooh, and look at this one — "~Archeologists find 2000 year old shroud, identical to the one found in Turin, under Navaho ruins'" On the playground and in stores where many knew her age, PeeWee felt like a green baby from Alpha Centuri; when she imagined herself as a floating brain, transformed into noncorporeal thought, she wondered if she belonged more to the world of her aunt than to that of Mother, Father and classroom.

"Tell the Doctor what Santa's bringing you for Christmas," Mother prodded when Dr. Jarvis swaggered into the waiting room to greet them.

A Kiss-Me-Cutie-And-I'll-Shake-My-Bootie lip-puckering, eye-rolling, Hollering Harriet-the-Harlot doll, with software voice-recognition and the ability to hug, kick up one leg, shake her booty and trill 'Daaaaarling' on command. A fluorescent purple trainer cell phone, the real thing minus voice mail. A room packed floor to ceiling with Legos, the blocks crashing out when she turned the beribboned knob and yanked open the special door. Gifts guaranteed to thrill eight year olds everywhere, the hottest hits according to TV ads and the overheard exclamations of her classmates. PeeWee almost blurted her thoughts, recalling the lines she'd rehearsed for the schoolyard. "A lowboy," she grunted.

"She's investing in her future. She knows that the pieces will add up," Mother asserted as she followed the doctor towards the examining room. "A lowboy now, a pair of candle sticks at birthday time. And she knows to pick quality, quality lasts. Eh, what did Santa say when you asked him for a lowboy?"

"Uh, you say that she hasn't grown an inch since her fourth birthday?" The doctor gestured towards two seats and wedged himself behind a massive steel desk as slick and glistening as a sleet-iced road. The cold of the metal armrest burrowed through PeeWee's skin and seeped into her blood; she shivered, wriggled off the chair, crept towards the locked glass cabinets stocked with syringes in crinkly sterile packets, and watched the adults through a flickering fluorescent haze.

"Only her feet keep getting longer and wider, she's already into woman's sizes," Mother affirmed. "But what about her test results?"

"Good news and bad. What I mean is, the tests were all normal," the doctor added quickly, in response to mother's scowl. He flipped through pages printed with the austere, professionally gilded logo of a local lab, pausing occasionally to squint at a code of letters and numbers. "No worms or other parasites in the feces. No anemias, no endocrine abnormalities on the screening panel. Chemistry indicates kidneys and liver in working order. X-rays show normal patterns of bone deposition. The bad news is, we still have no idea why she's stopped growing."

PeeWee fidgeted in the shadowy corner beside the syringe cabinet; behind the screen of fluorescent light, her shoulders slumped as hopes for a tapeworm slithered away.

"Of course, we've only screened for the most common causes." Doctor Jarvis slapped the folder shut, then tapped the volume rhythmically against his knee. "We can look for rarer conditions, maybe keep her in the hospital for a few days while we run the whole gamut of tests." He paused to stare quizzically at Mother. "And you say she was adopted? No information about the biological parents?"

"None," Mother sighed. "We put in a request for a baby and took the first one that came along."

PeeWee imagined a giant Baby Manufacturing Plant, with mothers lined up for blocks, eager to claim the next infant to slide off the assembly line. Due to a machine malfunction or slipshod workers, occasional models emerged missing an arm or with too many toes; more often, manufacturing glitches didn't show up until years later, as a kid who was too slow for school or too short for anything. PeeWee wondered if Mama could return her for a refund. And what did the factory do with its defective specimens?

"There's one possibility, less remote than you might think; until a few years ago, scientists wouldn't even have considered it." The doctor rested his forearms on the huge desk and leaned forward, as Mother slid backward in her chair. "Many circus celebrities, such as General Tom Thumb and his wife Lavinia, may have shared something with your daughter. No, your daughter needn't join a freak show; she can attend college and work in an office, she will just be very short. For decades, the trade has referred to non-achondroplastic homozygotic dwarfism, a catchall for well-proportioned, nimble little people who don't look like Snow White's chesty companions. But here's what's really miraculous — "

"Miraculous! My kid's a dwarf, and you call that miraculous?" Mother snarled. She shot up from her seat and pounded the desk with a fist as hard and relentless as a grenade. "Talk about insensitive doctors — you lead the pack!"

Dr. Jarvis lifted a stack of journals and spread them across his desk, so that Mother could read the respectable titles. In red block letters, one cover asked "Homo Floresiensis, Source of the Hobbit Legends?" Another, in bright yellow print conspicuous against glossy black, asked "Hobbits, Elves, Leprechauns — Mythical Creatures or Memorialized Companions?" Mother reached for one journal, known for its speculative articles, with the cover headline "The Hobbits Among Us: Do Elves Drive Down the Streets of New York?" Dr. Jarvis lifted the publication and read from the book-marked article:

"Studies of Homo Floresiensus show a skeletal structure identical to that of many living and disinterred circus midgets; this includes a tendency of many such 'little people' to possess extremely long, nimble feet. The discovery casts doubt on the initial hypothesis that the 'little people' first discovered in an Indonesian prehistoric dig are truly an extinct species separate from Homo Sapiens; some believe that the two races of human have interbred for millennia, with the shorter variant becoming rarer over time but never dying out completely as some genetic combinations allow its episodic expression in nearly pure form." The doctor rocked back in his chair and smiled dreamily at Mother. "Artists' reconstructions show a marked resemblance of this Homo Floresiensus to the elves and leprechauns of folklore; while such mythic creatures possessed magical powers, it remains unknown whether Homo Floresiensus differed from his Homo Sapiens brothers in sensory acuity or other abilities. Amazing, isn't it?"

Dr. Jarvis inhaled deeply and opened his mouth to read further, but Mother snatched the journal from him.

"This is supposed to comfort me?" she shrieked, and hurled the magazine at the wall. "You're telling me that my daughter's an...elf!"

PeeWee thought of Aunt Margie's house, one of several hundred identical, prefabricated, clapboard and brick split levels set on a barbered green slab. Over the years, residents had added shutters, planted bushes and colored the clapboard, so that their homes could be distinguished by more than the number over the door. Locally, Aunt Margie's house had become a landmark; when giving directions, people would say, "It's four driveways past the elf house" or "Hang a right just after the house with the elves." Fat cement elves in red vests prepared to strut across the lawn, their chubby fingers twisted around painted suspenders. Lean elves in green lederhosen pranced in foursomes under the spruce. Ruddy-cheeked elves in bright yellow caps squinted at the sky. Grinning pot-bellied elves sat cross-legged on the hard soil, welcoming visitors with plump outstretched arms. Margie had made her home hospitable to the little people with big feet and ears; in her yard, an elf child could caper unembarrassed in the company of kin.

"It's not the only possibility, not even likely," Dr. Jarvis stammered. "It was just an interesting — "

"Interesting! I bring you this interesting case, which is more frustrating than interesting to me." Mother marched to the room's corner, yanked PeeWee's arm and tugged her towards the exit. "And your diagnosis is Hobbit. Hobbit! What a flake! Where'd you buy your medical degree, on the internet?"

She slammed the door behind her as the doctor gaped.

"Quack!" she fumed, "Don't listen to him, he doesn't know what he's talking about. I wouldn't have taken you there if I'd known he was such a quack!"

PeeWee nodded silently as she climbed into the car.

During the weeks before Christmas, PeeWee thought about people who'd never grow tall. When she helped with chores, watching the dust bunnies scurry into the vacuum cleaner's greedy jaws, she wondered if larger models ever sucked up little people who couldn't run away from the roaring monster fast enough. When Mother sternly informed Father that dinners didn't materialize magically out of air and that "men who wanted real lasagna, not microwave-heated plastic slabs in sawdust sauce, would just have to learn how to wait," PeeWee recalled Aunt Margie's announcement that the house elves responsible for cooking, laundering and cleaning toilet bowls had gone on strike and run away. Aunt Margie had cursed the lazy ingrates, threatened to replace them with lonely gnomes who'd work for mere smiles, secretly implored the wind to blow them back through her open kitchen window, then concluded that the little helpers weren't coming back; after a week, Uncle Billy had learned how to boil eggs and hang up his shirts. PeeWee wondered if she'd been brought here to scour the bathtub, iron shirts, and scrub the toilet bowl until it sparkled, just like the elves and foundlings in all those folk tales.

"Mankind's a defective species, he's born with a crazy gene," Mother muttered one mid-December night, after hearing news about another war. "If you're an elf — which I doubt, that doctor's wacko — but, if you are, maybe your species is sane."

PeeWee nodded solemnly as footage of exploding smart-bombs flashed on the living room TV. Dry fir needles already fell from the Christmas tree, impaling the rug. The balls gleamed, shiny as bullets; up top, the star's knife-sharp points cut the air. The thick air, bitter with the combined smells of evergreen, lemon-scented air-freshener and cleaning fluids clung to PeeWee like a parasite sucking away her energy. Outside, night-blurred street curved into night-blurred street. Every tree loomed identically stiff; snow drifts covered the oak roots and curbs, noticed only by short children and dogs. Incisive shadows cut through icy gray yards. On a road of compacted snow, Styrofoam cups ricocheted off tires and crumpled foil wrappers drove forward like gust-charged grenades under the orange glow of sentinel street lamps. A little person could suffocate under a drift, be knocked unconscious by a speeding cup or impaled by a fir needle; she could get lost forever in the shadows.

"The people with a crazy gene — they won't come after me, will they?" she fretted. "Because they think I'm an elf? Try to catch me and put me in a jar for some tree house museum, like I wanted to do with the fairies?"

Aunt Margie had told a four-year-old PeeWee that fairies lived under the clover; if she squinted, she might spot a teeming city or the ruins of a town crushed under human boots. Fireflies and dragonflies were fairies in disguise. Knowing nothing about what fairies liked to eat, PeeWee had dropped gutted fish parts, dried worms, toasted marshmallows and chocolate nuggets in the field, hoping that one delicacy would lure the fairies out of hiding. She didn't want to hurt the little flying people; she just wanted to catch them in a jar and study them, as other kids studied caterpillars and spiders. If someone were to capture PeeWee, she might die inside the jar, from falling while trying to scale its slick glass walls or from asphyxiation if someone forgot to poke out air holes.

"No, they don't make jars big enough to hold you. And people can't snatch up someone else's kid as a specimen, it's against the law." Mother sighed loudly. "Besides, you're not an elf."

"More of that elf nonsense? That doctor should have his head examined; he's as loony as your sister-in-law," Father grunted. "Speaking of sisters-in-law, I wonder what she's going to dump on us this Christmas? That woman's taste is up her ass — "

"Sam!" Mother exclaimed, then jerked her chin towards PeeWee.

"Her taste is up the whazoo," Father muttered, "I wonder where she finds that stuff. What did you ever do with last year's monstrosity?"

Margie had given Mother a four-foot tall brown candle carved to resemble an owl; it reportedly could burn nonstop for a month.

"Janie has it".

"Who, that retarded lady from your watering hole?"

"It's not a watering hole; it's a coffee counter in a luncheonette," Mother retorted. "And Janie's not retarded, she has a mental illness. She's spent half her life in institutions; that's why she's stayed a little girl. She's afraid of doing anything on her own, but that's what happens when you're 45 and have always lived with your mother. She's whiny and can't cope, which makes her look stupid. When I heard her raving about all the stuffed toys and Disney dolls she's collected, I knew she was the solution to the ugly gift problem. Of course, I didn't tell her it was a cast off. She was thrilled with the owl, she was going to put it next to her Cinderella doll".

"At least Margie can take care of herself. But I wonder about their sanity — your brother with his toy trains upstairs, Margie with the downstairs and the lawn."

PeeWee cleared her throat. "No sense of quality, they never learned about quality," she piped up. "All that plastic; toys don't endure."

"Those trains are Lionel collectibles," Mother snapped. "Do you know how much he could get for each one? And the stuffed animals are brand name Steiffels, hand made and imported from Germany; they're decorations, not toys." Mother glared at Father. "She has a unique sense of taste, that's all. The lawn's…unique. You can't miss the house."

Father shrugged. PeeWee stared down at her own large, dangling feet; perhaps elf children could never understand the meaning of quality.

Uncle Billy and Aunt Margie always hosted the ritual Christmas dinner. On arriving at their house this year, PeeWee paid special attention to the lawn statues; she wanted to see whether she resembled an elf more than a human.

At least fifty bearded elves in hide boots and lamb-skin vests hunched over hoes and picks in Aunt Margie's snowy yard; near them, female elves in leather capes held up trays of fruit tarts and fermented cider, hand-carved stone studs gleamed in their earlobes. As PeeWee panted to keep up with her parents, who were already climbing the steep steps to Aunt Margie's porch, one female elf twisted her lips into a conspiratorial smile; a male turned his neck to glance up from his hoe. PeeWee imagined steam rippling up from one plate and the fragrance of spiced baked apples trickling into her nostrils.

"One of them winked at me!" PeeWee exclaimed.

"Impossible. They're cheap concrete figurines, mass produced from molds and painted. Some are just bargain-basement plastic, with the seams showing if you get close to them. Those won't last the season; they'll blow away in the first gale. Winking? That's just your imagination." Mother snorted derisively, stopped to look back, and scowled at PeeWee's slowness. The plaster faces resumed their blank obliviousness; the woman elf might never have smiled. Dark red paint, beaten by ice storms and wind, now peeled from the apples. "Hurry up, we don't have all day. They're already waiting for us at the door."

"Get the ritual over with," Father muttered as he trudged up the steps. "In and out fast, year's duty done."

"Sam!" Mother hissed. "They might hear you."

"If I had my way, I'd get up at noon, eat a grilled cheese sandwich for dinner," Father mumbled. "None of this 'tree up, then tree down; drive an hour and pretend to like your ugly gift' business. Everyone's addicted to the ritual. Eh, who knows, maybe people would go insane if they didn't have these rituals telling them what to think about."

Father stomped his boots until the slush dropped off in gray, cinder spotted clods. Mother prodded PeeWee through the door and nudged her husband towards the welcoming arms before he could say more.

"Come in! Merry Christmas! Give us your coats!"

"An elf, you say, Homo floriensis?"

"The doctor's a nut case."

"I just read about it in the Enquirer, a whole page about the hobbits, right next to the confessions of an alien abductee."

"That kind of incompetence should be chased out of business."

"Quality, she's learning about quality and investing in her future."

"She's short, but we'll see another doctor and get a cure."

"The front yard looks good, even more statues than last time...Oh, we don't use the 'elf' word anymore, but you say that the new ones just appeared on their own? A whole colony of, uh,...little people arrived overnight and set up camp on your lawn? Right here in suburbia just down the road from a Ford dealership? PeeWee, tell your Aunt and uncle what Santa brought you; she's learning about quality and has a real eye for it."

Aunt Margie trilled, Uncle Billy drawled, Father grunted and Mother yapped with practiced enthusiasm. PeeWee slipped away from the cacophony to perch on the edge of the sofa, where she could relax in the lulling yellow light and sink into the embrace of an enormous cushion. Maybe she could stow away in Aunt Margie's closet, sneaking food up when no one was looking and creeping outside at night to join the community of peaceful happy elves.

"Don't move those animals," Margie squealed, waving her broad hands for emphasis. "They're sleeping in their special places." The animals would have bad dreams if PeeWee moved even one; they didn't like sleeping next to strange bedfellows. The doe wouldn't sleep next to the teddy bear, who only looked cuddly when he was hibernating. The rooster was unsafe next to the fox; the mole was endangered by a nearby leopard. But, PeeWee could play with the big tiger on the green chair. The big animals were mere decoration, making the place more homey for the small stuffed creatures who awakened after the humans had gone to bed. "And don't knock any down. The back of the sofa's like a cliff to them; a long fall, how would you feel if you toppled into a canyon? Painful bones and bruises all over; they feel the pain, even if we can't see their blood."

Father sighed and backed towards the set table. Outside, across the street, colored lights twinkled below moonlit clouds and an oak extended its gnarled branches like tentacles. From the table wafted the cloyingly sweet aroma of the usual stringy and over-salted ham, surrounded by bowls of liberally peppered potato salad, sauerkraut that dripped nose-tingling vinegar, and the genuine Bavarian chocolate cake imported from New Jersey.

"Here, Joan, this one's yours." Margie chirped, flitting back from the Christmas tree and propping a tall foil-wrapped box before Mother. "This is for you!" she exclaimed, "I saw it and instantly thought of you. And Sam, this one's yours".

Father shuffled forward and gazed expressionlessly at the men's after-shave lotion, in a dark green bottle shaped like a squirrel plucking a banjo with its pointed nails.

"We wanted to get you something you could use," Billy explained. "Margie bought it but I figured, a man can always use this. And you're supposed to save the bottle, they're collector's items; in twenty years, you'll get some money for that bottle. It was a choice between this and a pen set, but Margie wasn't sure how you felt about fountain pens."

"Thank you," Father muttered, "It was very thoughtful of you." Later, he would add it to the ten other, unopened, glass aftershave bottles gathered at one corner of his basement desk; there, beside a sprinkling of rusty nails and above dented drawers, a pianist mouse, a rabbit in tutu, a tap dancing moose and a harmonica-playing woodchuck waited patiently to become collectibles.

Mother winced briefly when she saw the words "Toy World" in looping red script, then pursed her lips into a thin smile as she opened the box to see a 3 foot tall panda bear wearing a Coolie hat.

"He's from China," Aunt Margie chirped. "Now pull the string under his chin! See? Look at all those little lights flashing at the edge of his hat? And if you push the button on his back, he sings 'Jingle Bells' and claps his paws! I almost kept him myself, as a companion for my koala bear; my koala gets lonely, sitting all by himself on the arm rest."

"Koalas aren't bears," Father declared with professorial solemnity. "They're marsupials. And I heard on a documentary that they get high on the eucalyptus leaves they often eat. So koalas are easy to catch; they're dimwitted because they're always drunk. Blotto from munching and sniffing eucalyptus."

PeeWee inched towards the stuffed koala and stroked its ears. She imagined substituting koalas for grizzlies in all those stories. In "Goldilocks and the Three Drunken Bears", a bed would feel "just right" if surrounded by bottles of fermented eucalyptus juice. Tipsy teddy bears would entertain the heroine by growling pub songs out of key, then collapsing sprawled on the floor with their fur matted and sticky and their legs contorted at impossible angles. Small creatures in forests everywhere would feel safer if the bears stayed blotto.

"PeeWee! We almost forgot PeeWee!" Aunt Margie shrieked. "Get that envelope from under the tree. And don't knock down the tiger!"

Twenty stuffed grizzlies, giraffes, lions, hippos, parrots and other animals paraded along the back of the sofa; each wore an original "Authenticity of Purchase" tag around its neck, proclaiming it a "genuine Steiffel toy". A giant white polar bear lounged in a wing chair; a waist high tiger, sitting erect with vigilant glass eyes, guarded the bay window. A plastic, spotted cow's head groaned "moo" when someone tugged at the ring looping through its nostrils. Three brightly painted cuckoo clocks squawked simultaneously. Spotlessly clean, pink glass piglets posed beside wind-up music box roosters on the shelves. Wolf skins draped over chair backs. The living room was, according to Uncle Billy, "Margie's place; she does what makes her happy."

"We didn't know what to get a child," Aunt Margie panted, as she handed over the usual unlabeled envelope, flat and longer than the five bills it always contained. "So, we got you money. We aren't used to shopping for kids."

PeeWee peered in the envelope and counted fifty dollars.

"I'll take you to the bank; you can deposit that in your account," Mother asserted, as PeeWee slid the envelope into a pocket. "She's learning about the value of money. And quality. Santa brought her a lowboy, which she picked out herself. She has a natural knack for recognizing quality; I took her to a store and she instantly chose the piece with the best craftsmanship and finest grain of wood. Next year, she might want to ask Santa to bring an armchair for her bedroom, mahogany with Chippendale claw feet and burnt gold damask upholstery."

"That's one way to furnish your house," Uncle Billy chortled softly; only PeeWee heard him. "Maybe there's some use for that Santa guy after all".

"But if he brings you an armchair, you can't sit on it," Mother continued, as PeeWee inched towards the front window overlooking the lawn crowded with elf statues. "Your father ruined the upholstery on the one in the living room by sitting on it after mowing the lawn; then he'd lean his greasy head back and nap there. The grass stains and hair oil won't come out. People who understand quality don't abuse a fine object that way; you'd respect a Chippendale, wouldn't you?"

PeeWee parted the front drapes and eased behind the fabric; she raised her arms, clasped the window sill in her strong broad palms, lifted her body until she could sit on the ledge, and pressed her stubby nose to the glass. Outdoors, a foot lifted; a wide flat hand scratched a chin; thick lips expanded around an offered bun as PeeWee gaped. Male elves darted, faster than rabbits but leaving no tracks, across the snow they heaved their tiny sharp axes against the branches of a special bush, then zipped back to their original stationary positions when a car approached. Females seemed to fly as fast as thought, transported instantaneously by the magic wings of their capes.

"They move!" She gasped.

"This again," Mother groaned. "First they wink, now they walk."

Aunt Margie nodded enthusiastically. "What do you see, exactly?" she urged in a breathy staccato. With large stuffed tigers and bears sprawled in every armchair, and carefully dressed cloth animals aligned in precise order atop the sofa, Aunt Margie was childlike, still with some ties to the elf world. Petite and with a piping voice, she could even be part elf, a half-breed, which perhaps explained the infertility of her marriage with Uncle Billy; PeeWee had never seen her feet, hidden under frilly slippers and fur-cuffed pants.

"Come back here," Mother scolded. "You shouldn't be behind those drapes anyway; your aunt spent hours cleaning and ironing them."

PeeWee sat still, cloaked by fabric and shade as she watched and listened.

"We came because we knew you'd be here," a fluty voice warbled from outside.

"Yup, we know you always come here on Christmas," a second, deeper voice chimed. "And we know the doctor's onto you; we know he's been telling your mother about your real bloodline. The elf grapevine works fast."

"That's because it works through telepathy; thought travels faster than light."

"And how do you think your mother will treat you when she's convinced you're an elf?" The fluty voice continued. "She may think the doctor's a crackpot now, but these humans always believe after they hear a few convincing arguments. And when you don't grow much taller after vitamins and hormones and special tonics? Do you think she'd let you learn elf ways? Learn special elf skills when you come into your powers?"

"It's your birthright," the male elf crooned solemnly. "She'd deny you your birthright. We couldn't let that happen; we had to come."

Elves crowded the yard, jostling each other for a place closer to the window. Later-comers sprinted down the street, vaulted nimbly over high steel fences, scurried under bushes and scampered between spiky branches to join the throng. Elves scrambled up tree trunks to crouch on limbs beside garlands of twinkling, red and green lights; every maple, oak and birch became a tower of elves, each quivering as hundreds of little people fidgeted on the branches. Elves perched on chimneys and dangled their feet over the bricks; they sat cross-legged on roofs and watched through tiny brass binoculars. Not even the oldest elves, with white hair and creased faces, shuffled, stumbled over rocks, or wobbled while standing atop a cupola.

"So many of them!" PeeWee murmured. "And all perfectly balanced!"

"Come down off that sill! That's no way to act in someone else's house, especially when the host gives you money and cooks a special meal," Mother snapped. PeeWee glanced outside, then in the direction of her mother's voice. Her shoulders contracted inward, her face tensed into stony immobility and her chest stiffened.

"Don't worry, she can't see us; only those with elf blood can see us," the fluty voice reassured. The speaker had pierced the exposed skin of her ears with a hundred tiny pieces of glittering stone and metal; the pointed tips and dangling lobes looked like they'd been stitched with stars. "Mere humans would just see plaster statues. Of course, we do take precautions. Some of our worst problems have come from people with just enough elf blood to see us, but not enough to understand us."

"They don't believe that we exist," a bifocaled elder laughed. "Even though they make up stories about us. When we play pranks on them, they blame the family cat or the youngest child. Or ghosts; they believe in ghosts"

"Oh honey," a younger male elf mocked in a quivering falsetto, "I hear knocking and scratching in the walls whenever I go to the bathroom. Sometimes squeals and giggles come from the pipes. And the ceiling sings while I wash my face, a high nasal voice like a rat's, but rats can't carry a tune or remember lyrics. Honey, this is more than the exterminator can handle. Do you think the toilet's haunted? Do I need to call an exorcist, or should I consult the town psychic first?"

"Impossible to elf-proof a house; pesticides don't work," the female elf laughed; her voice sounded like bells.

"Extraterrestrials," the elderly elf crooned. "That's the latest fad. Nowadays, with all the rocket technology, they blame everything on space aliens. But space aliens are better than demons, I suppose. The middle ages were hell on elves, with the Grand Inquisitors torturing our cats and trying to set fire to us even though they couldn't see us. That's when we learned to be cautious; some people with a few drops of elf blood could see us, didn't want to be branded as witches, and told the inquisitors where to hurl the torches."

Behind PeeWee, chair legs scratched across linoleum, napkins and shirt cuffs rustled, and forks clinked against plates. "She's missing a very good meal and being very rude," Mother pronounced each syllable loudly and very slowly, puckered her lips to make a noisy sucking sound, then clapped her hands rhythmically against her taut abdomen. "Yum, this is very good ham. Your Aunt Margie is a very good cook. You are missing a very good meal." Each drawn-out syllable pounded the air with robotic regularity.

"Extraterrestrials. Like my Aunt Margie believes," PeeWee thought, ignoring her mother's call; the elves heard the words in her mind.

"Your Aunt Margie doesn't know it, but she's part elf," the bifocaled elf said, and PeeWee inhaled abruptly. "One fourth — her grandfather. Big family secret — "

"She doesn't need to hear about that now; she can learn all that later," the stylish lady elf, with constellations whirling in her earlobes, interrupted. "You're safe enough where you are, but you're with the wrong family. Cassandra, you're one of us."

PeeWee gasped.

"You're surprised that we know your name? Even more surprised that we use it for a little person? Cassandra's a fairly common elf name — a magical name, because of the fortuneteller. And names like Brunnhilde and Gretchen are quite common among us; that's because so many elves once lived in what's now Germany."

PeeWee couldn't remember hearing her parents say her name, or call her by any name whatsoever; they merely stared down at her or hollered down the hall when they wanted her attention, and assumed that she'd respond. When she was very young, she'd briefly thought that her name might be "She" or "The Child"; her parents often used these words when talking about her. Her classmates, after nicknaming her in first grade, emphasized the "Pee" over the "Wee". Her teachers only pronounced her given name, in mechanical drones, during roll call; when asked to read aloud or write on the blackboard, she again became "PeeWee" or, occasionally, "Ms. Witkin". "Cassandra" suggested someone tall and imposing, a prophet of superhuman stature; even the nickname "Cassie" seemed too robust and worldly for a child small enough to vanish through the pores of the earth. But the elves had reported many Brunnhildes among their kind; to humans, Brunnhildes were Valkyries, commanding a Wagnerian universe with their muscularity, height and bellowing outcries.

To be called by her real name, to even be acknowledged as having a real name — this pleased PeeWee more than any Christmas gift she'd ever received.

"You need to be with us. You need to be with your own kind," the lady elf cooed.

PeeWee nodded. Every elf face glowed like a small sun alight with inner vitality. Laugh lines creased the skin of each elderly elf; every mouth turned upward and could easily widen into a puckish grin. The ears of many females twinkled, each with a different pattern corresponding to a unique galaxy and joining the others to form a universe. A shimmering filigree wove through each leather vest and cape; as PeeWee watched, finer and finer tributaries branched out, silver river birthing gold stream birthing coppery brook in a living tapestry.

"Yes!" PeeWee exclaimed as she jumped from the windowsill.

"Yes!" She panted as she dashed to the door and yanked at the handle.

"Yes, oh yes!" She squealed as she broke out of the house and leaped down the porch stairs; she only glanced back once.

"What? Come back here this instant! What's wrong with you anyway, acting like this on Christmas Day?" Mother charged forward as she barked orders. Uncle Billy waddled behind her; his belly jiggled and his red face dripped sweat. Aunt Margie scampered forth on tiptoe, her hands fluttering as she stammered shrilly. Father loped forward and leaned against the porch wall, a shadow watching as the others fretted down the steps.

"Stop!" Mother screeched.

PeeWee raced into the crowd of elves.

For an instant, the air around her rippled like water and the ground beneath her rocked as though afloat. Although she breathed in air, rarefied and free of the usual exhaust fumes and shampoo smells, she felt that her chest no longer rose or fell. Voices came to her muted, as though muffled by a cocoon. With her head thrust forward, PeeWee saw the brown paint flaking from where her loafers had been painted on the concrete mold. Spattered street grime had discolored her red trousers; from the tip of the icicle attached to her elbow, water droplets bulged, fell, and trickled down her bent knee.

"She's turned into a statue!" Mother shrieked.

another transformation by Charmaine Frost

Father, who'd strolled down the steps behind the others, rapped on PeeWee's arched back, then on one shoulder, then on her head.

"Thuds. No hollow spots. Entirely plaster," he declared.

"She's a statue! Who cares if there are no hollow spots?" Mother yelled. "She's turned into one of Margie's garden figures!"

"She's joined the elves!" Aunt Margie squealed.

Mother rubbed one fingertip over PeeWee's shoulder, as though testing for wet paint. She scratched one fingernail over PeeWee's thigh, as though looking for warm flesh beneath a coat of paint. She crouched in front of PeeWee and squinted at the eyes, delicately painted but lifeless. Then she frowned, blinked deliberately, and traced the mouth twice with her forefinger.

"Strange," she stammered.

Of course it's strange," Father grunted. "A child doesn't usually turn into a statue just by running into a lawn full of plaster elves."

Mother stood up slowly.

"I don't remember ever seeing her smile," she sighed. "Now, she's grinning."

No comments: